Bela Fleck | Bringing the Africa Project to Life

fleck_small.jpg"The whole experience has been amazing. When you get to do something you’re madly in love with it never feels like work."








The Sheldon Concert Hall, St. Louis

Bela Fleck is undoubtedly one of the most talented and versatile musicians playing today and one of the best (if not the best) banjo players. Fleck has been nominated in more Grammy categories than any artist in history, including Country, Pop, Jazz, Bluegrass, Classical, Folk, Spoken Word, Composition, and Arranging. On the heels of his 11th win (for Best Instrumental Pop Album), he recently kicked off a 15-city tour in support of Throw Down Your Heart, the third volume in his renowned Tales From the Acoustic Planet album series.

Throw Down Your Heart
is, according to Fleck, his most ambitious project to date, created in on-location collaborations with musicians from Uganda, Tanzania, Senegal, Mali, South Africa and Madagascar on what would be the journey of his lifetime.

"It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long, long time – ever since I found out that the banjo came from Africa," Fleck tells me in a phone interview at the kickoff of the tour, making a stop at The Sheldon Concert Hall on Wednesday night. "Over the years, I would hear amazing African music and just think, ‘Wow, I’d really like to play with those guys – that sounds really cool.’ Then the Flecktones took a year off and I was looking for something ambitious to do, so I thought it was the perfect time to go to Africa."

The album Throw Down Your Heart is a companion to the already award-winning documentary film of the same name about the project, which Fleck and his younger brother, director Sascha Paladino, are currently premiering in small theaters in select cities. St. Louis is lucky enough to be on the list for a screening June 5-7 as part of the Webster University Film Series.

At the time Fleck was planning the trip to Africa, he casually mentioned it to Peter Gelb, who ran Sony’s Classical division. Gelb loved the idea and snatched up the project, suggesting Fleck have his brother film the process.

"He loved the work my brother had done shooting Edgar Meyer and myself for Obstinato, a short film that was included with our Music for Two recording, and suggested that Sascha come and direct," Fleck says.

Although it was his idea, Gelb got sticker shock when he saw the estimated cost of making the film the way Fleck and Paladino wanted to do it. With plane tickets already purchased and no time to look for another label, Fleck funded the entire project himself, out of his own pocket.

"It’s the most risky thing I’ve done since I quit New Grass Revival to put the Flecktones together and spent my own money to make our first record," he says. "The whole experience has been amazing. When you get to do something you’re madly in love with it never feels like work."

Truly a labor of love, the trip and the making of the film were also a unique bonding experience for Fleck and Paladino, who is 17 years his junior.  

"When I was leaving to go be a musician, he was just being born, so this was the most time we’ve ever spent together, and it was in very intense work environment. That is how I kind of bond with people anyway – working with them in intense musical situations – because there’s a respect there. Then once you respect each other, you can really have a great time," he says.

Fleck is bringing some of Africa’s most renowned musicians with him on the tour and exposing audiences to sounds and styles they may never have heard before. "It’s an acoustic type evening," he says. People might think it’s going to be a lot of percussion and dancing – that’s not this side of Africa. I’m bringing the side you don’t get to hear much, which is this subtle, delicate, beautiful acoustic music."

The biggest "star" of the tour, Fleck says, is Toumani Diabate, the "reigning kora king" and a well-known African instrumentalist. The kora is kind of an African harp and it comes from the Griot tradition of musical historians, or as Fleck calls them, "heavy musical cats" from West Africa.

Also joining Fleck onstage is D’Gary, a guitarist and vocalist from Madagascar who represents the traditional music of that region. "He’s a finger style guitar hero," says Fleck.

Then there’s Anania Ngoliga, a blind thumb piano player who, according to Fleck, "sings like a bird and plays like a jazz musician. Stunning." Vusi Mahlesela, a vocalist and guitarist from South Africa, rounds out the group.

Fleck is committed to developing the African sound for the next year or so, and is excited to be bringing these esteemed musicians to the U.S. to share what he experienced while making Throw Down Your Heart.

"For three years after the trip, every day I’d get to go down in my studio or out on tour and I’d be listening to this great African music, and I’m going to really miss it when it’s not a major part of my day anymore," Fleck says. "Luckily I have another year or so of it being the center of my life because we’ve got the tour and the movie coming out."

The film will be sold in a limited edition on tour but won’t officially be released on DVD until October, in a new version with a lot of extras.

So what’s next for the Grammy-winning banjo virtuoso? After this tour wraps, he’ll be playing dates in the fall with Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hussein; then the Flecktones hit the road again in November and December.

"I’m a ping pong ball," Fleck says. But It’s a great place to be." | Amy Burger

Bela Fleck: The Africa Project
The Sheldon Concert Hall
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
$55 orchestra
$45 balcony
Tickets available at Metrotix outlets on on

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